Craft vs Technology: 5 Key Lessons That Colorists Should Never Forget

Over the last twenty years, the tools and technologies we use to master cinematic motion imagery have transformed almost completely.

It’s a shift so drastic and multi-faceted that very few of us have a full and accurate understanding of what really happened. But there’s a lot we can learn from our industry’s past, especially from the artists and craftspeople whose shoulders we now stand upon.

In this article, we’re going to explore how the century-old craft of color timing can help us make the most of modern DI workflows.

So let’s dive in and learn from color grading’s original practitioners: color timers.

Looking back

The biggest change in color workflows over the past several decades was the move from color timing to the digital intermediate process.

Color timing is an analog laboratory process for manipulating color in photochemical film workflows. This process changes the amounts of red, green, and blue light used to create a film positive (or print) from a film negative.

These adjustments result in changes to exposure and/or color balance across the entire printed image. The film negative is the original celluloid source, and the final color timed result is recorded to the film positive.

Digital intermediate (DI) is the electronic, software-driven process virtually all modern filmmakers use to master their images. With DI, images are encoded as digital data, which is then manipulated to determine how the image is reproduced. These manipulations can be broad adjustments to the whole image (similar to those made in color timing), or they can be narrow adjustments, such as changing the color of a tree or softening an actor’s skin.

With DI, the original source can be either film or digital, and so too can the final result. What’s important is that this middle portion of the process — the part between capture and exhibition — is done digitally, hence the name.

You’re likely to hear the term used interchangeably with color grading or color correction. However, these terms each have their own connotations and implications, so in this article we’ll stick with digital intermediate for the sake of clarity.

What’s changed?

So why did filmmakers make the jump to digital color after decades of experience (and investment) in photochemical color workflows?

In short, DI gives more control than color timing, and with much less hassle.

The shift from color timing to digital intermediate has empowered filmmakers to take greater authorship of their images at a fraction of the cost, and this endowment only grows as technologies continue to evolve.

But there’s more to these technological advancements than just cost and efficiency.

On a philosophical level, DI has transformed the motion image mastering process from being substrate-centric to being image-centric. Rather than forcing filmmakers to orient their creative vision and mastering process around a physical medium (celluloid film), DI enables us to capture, store, and reproduce our work in many different ways.

This “un-tethering” of the image from the medium has two key benefits:

  • It refocuses our attention on the final image, rather than the way it’s acquired or displayed.
  • It allows us to manipulate the image without having to manipulate physical film, which is difficult, delicate, time-consuming, and thus expensive.

Most of us haven’t had the experience of shooting celluloid film, much less timing it, so it’s easy to take these benefits for granted.

But imagine having to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on print stock and lab fees simply to try out an idea during the image mastering process. Or discovering that your final release prints have “drifted” from the balance and exposure you worked for weeks to perfect. Thanks to digital intermediate, such scenarios are relics of a bygone era.

Craft versus technology

If color timing is so expensive, limited, and obsolete, why are we discussing it? Why is it relevant to modern filmmakers?

The answer comes down to an important distinction: craft versus technology.

While digital intermediate may offer cheaper, more precise, and more varied creative options than color timing, it’s up to us to use these tools effectively.

The same power and flexibility that make DI so appealing also impose new demands on filmmakers and colorists. The ever-growing creative and technical possibilities of digital workflows mean we have to make more choices about how best to support our creative vision.

More than new tools, we need craft — the very kind of craft perfected by color timers for nearly a century, before the advent of modern DI technology.

While digital intermediate may offer cheaper, more precise, and more varied creative choices than color timing, it’s up to us to use these tools effectively.

How color timing worked

With its reliance on analog technologies and ultra-specialized skill sets, the color timing process looked very different from modern DI workflows. Let’s explore the basics.

The color timer and creative team (usually some combination of director, cinematographer, and/or producer) selected a print stock, which had a strong influence on the film’s contrast and colorimetry — more so than any other single choice in the image mastering process. Because of the pivotal role print stock selection played in a film’s overall look, this choice was typically made in pre-production after extensive testing.

Once the film was shot and fully edited, the team viewed an initial print of the cut, and assessed the needs of each scene and shot.

As with modern grading, these needs might be corrective or creative. A correction might be removing a green cast from a particular shot, whereas a creative choice might be to add a blue push to better express the mood of a particular scene. And because these were photochemical processes, the equipment required for previewing was highly specialized, most commonly a Hazeltine or Kodak Color Analyzer.

Unlike in a digital environment, these machines operated in a linear fashion, meaning the edit had to be navigated by shuttling forward or backward. This is a considerably slower method than today’s non-linear systems, which allow instantaneous transport from one clip to another, regardless of their placement in the cut.

Even more common than the relative luxury of a color analyzer was for the team to simply watch a projected print in real-time, with no ability to pause, go back, or preview a desired adjustment. All they could do was take notes in the dark as the film played, doing their best to keep up.

After assessing the needs of the film with the team, the color timer used his or her expertise to express the desired adjustments in printer points (or printer lights), which described the global addition or subtraction of red, green, and/or blue from the image on a per-shot basis. These values were used to program a complex sequence of shot-by-shot shifts in the amount of red, green, and/or blue light used to strike the next print.

Finally, the revised print would once again be reviewed by the color timer and team, and further assessment made regarding any unmet or additional needs. This process was repeated as needed until the print was approved and typically took two to six weeks to complete.

Learning from the past

Appearances aside, the color timing process is really not so different from the way we master our images today.

Creative teams have to agree on an overall look and identify the technical needs and creative opportunities within the footage. From there, the director supervises an artist’s successive passes, offering feedback after each pass until everyone is satisfied.

One last thing before we dive into the key lessons. There are two important distinctions between color timing and digital intermediate we should recognize.

First, tools were extremely limited. Color timing can only adjust the overall balance of the image, and/or the overall exposure of the image.

Imagine being unable to soften the contrast of a “crunchy” shot, draw a power window to darken a distracting object, or add a bit of saturation to make your frame pop! Color timers had to do their work without the benefit of such tools. So remember how good you’ve got it the next time you sit down in your comfy grading suite with its plethora of buttons and knobs.

Second, time and cost pressures were much higher. Every additional print represented additional time and cost, so the timer needed to be able to produce the desired results with minimal guesswork.

Think of the last time you were grading a shot that felt a bit off. Now imagine having to identify the necessary adjustment, and commit to the expense of implementing it, but without being able to see the actual result until after you’d paid for the change. It sounds wild, but that’s what the tools required. Color timing was not for the uncertain or faint of heart.

5 Key lessons from color timing

Now that we have a sense of the basics of the color timing process, let’s discuss the five most important lessons we can learn from the brilliant artists who came before us.

1. Think globally

As we discussed, one of the most influential decisions in the color timing tradition was the selection of print stock.

All films had to be exhibited via a print stock, and there were only a few to choose from at any particular moment in film history. With these fixed and finite options, filmmakers and timers were forced to fully embrace their chosen print stock as a key driver of the film’s look, and to trust the baseline contrast and colorimetry it imparted to their image. And as happened so often in color timing, this apparent limitation actually led to a superior result.

Let’s illustrate that point with these three images. Each was individually graded by hand from their camera-original state.

Now look at the same three images with no individualized grading, and only a global print stock applied.

Not only does the sequence have a more cohesive visual flow, but the individual shots look better as well.

Today, most colorists assume that manually dialing in these characteristics on a per-shot basis will yield better, more nuanced images. But this is exactly the opposite of the way film images were mastered for most of cinema history. Instead, every image ultimately ran through the same meticulously-engineered cocktail of color science provided by the print stock.

This is one of the key secrets to the success of the color timing workflow: thinking and working globally produces a superior visual result, and allows for a more efficient process.

The great news is that we can have the best of the old and the new today. We’re no longer forced to select from a shortlist of predefined print stocks. Instead, we can create our own unique global signature that perfectly aligns with our creative intent. To repurpose the words of Jeff Lebowski, a good print stock “really ties the room together.”

2. Work scene-referred

Another key factor in the success of the color timing approach is that the work was always done in a scene-referred context.

Due to the nature of color timing workflows, timers had access to the full dynamic range and color gamut of the captured image as it would have appeared to an observer standing next to the camera.

Why was this so useful? Imagine a scene that’s too dark, with shots that are dim and lacking in detail. In a scene-referred workflow, much (if not all of) the desired detail and exposure can be recovered with one simple adjustment, with results that feel much like the opening of a camera lens.

Color timing’s scene-referred workflow allowed for organic and intuitive adjustments because the image was being manipulated in a photographic context, with a response that mimics human vision.

Unlike color timers, colorists today have the choice of working in a scene-referred or display-referred context. Display-referred means that all adjustments are made after the image has been transformed into the limited dynamic range and color gamut necessary for proper display.

To understand the implications of this, let’s look at our same example of the underexposed scene. Because we’ve discarded the full dynamic range of the camera negative and clipped it to the much smaller dynamic range of our display, when we go to lift our exposure, we quickly encounter the floor of the signal.

Just as bad, because our response no longer mimics that of human vision, we’re forced to make narrow adjustments to the various tonal ranges of our image in order to get a perceptually linear adjustment.

Working in a display-referred context creates the need for complicated and non-intuitive adjustments, which tend to feel displeasing and unnatural.

To make matters worse, many colorist aren’t even aware they have a choice to work scene or display-referred. Most of us accept our software’s default display-referred approach without knowledge of the alternative or its benefits.

This is a perfect example of why the power of modern DI can sometimes make us stumble. Since we can do anything, making the right choice is critical.

3. Find a common language

Despite its limitations, working and thinking in printer points had a major upside we’ve yet to discuss: it provided a standardized language easily understood across labs, facilities, and filmmakers.

Because printer points were derived from f-stops (filmmaking’s standard unit of measurement for physical light), they were readily grasped by filmmakers. This allowed for clear, concise collaboration between timers and filmmakers, something nearly all working colorists struggle within the era of digital color.

Here’s a great episode of the Team Deakins podcast in which Beverly Wood, former managing director at EFILM, explains printer points and the photochemical timing process.

The good news is that we can still incorporate this idea into modern workflows.

In fact, one of my go-to grading tools is a custom plug-in called POINTS, which offers printer points adjustments that operate in the same way and on the same scale as in a color timing environment. Points and stops of exposure have become my go-to units of measurement, and I’ve yet to work with a filmmaker who couldn’t immediately grasp this common language.

In a 2006 American Cinematographer essay entitled “A Call For Digital Printer Lights,” cinematographer Richard P. Crudo, ASC, pointedly observes the absence of this common language in digital workflows.

Crudo writes, “For decades, those of us shooting for theatrical release have used the Hazeltine printer light as a simple, consistent measure of what we’ve put on the negative, both technically and creatively. With nothing comparable to call upon in the telecine suite, we find that despite all best efforts, we’re not just flying blind, we’re working without a net.”

Amazingly, nearly 15 years later, this situation has yet to meaningfully change, leaving it to the individual colorist to devise and implement their own way of communicating with other stakeholders.

Whatever terminology you land on, the key lesson is to make a concerted effort to come up with language that works well for you and also for your collaborators. With this in place, the entirety of the color process becomes more meaningful, more enjoyable, and more productive.

4. Discipline your process

As I hope is clear by now, color timers worked under relentless pressure.

On one hand, this made their duties more challenging and stressful. But on the other hand it helped them to focus. They understood that there were only a handful of chances to achieve their goals, which made priorities clearer and forced the process to be more disciplined.

Today, one of the key challenges facing colorists is the illusion that we have endless options and endless time. But in approaching our work this way, we often find ourselves confronted with the truth of that old cliché that work expands to fill the time allotted.

It may feel like grinding away on a project hour after hour, day after day is improving the result, but without any structure, it’s really just delaying it.

If we can learn to work more like color timers did, laying out a plan for a number of hours and passes, it will energize our process and improve the quality of our work. In his book In The Blink of An Eye, legendary editor Walter Murch shares similar ideas when comparing the bygone method of linear flatbed editing to its modern digital counterpart.

Murch writes, “Paradoxically, the hidden advantage of editing sprocketed film was that the weight and volume of it encouraged the editor to take things seriously and to plan ahead before jumping in.”

It’s also important to remember that cheaper resources (changing pixels is basically free) don’t diminish the value of a colorist’s craft and time…or at least they shouldn’t! The reality is that it’s all too easy for clients and collaborators to forget that, unlike our software and hardware, colorists still have (and are well worth) their hourly rate.

It’s up to the colorist to gently reinforce this by establishing a clear and realistic path to success up front, which includes a set number of hours.

Without this, we lower our value and ultimately threaten our ability to run a sustainable business.

5. Keep it simple

The most important lesson we can learn from color timing is that the best solution is always the simplest one.

Modern grading software boasts tools of ever-expanding scope and complexity. Colorists are constantly bombarded with professional and competitive nudges to incorporate new tools into their work. After all, you can only attain the strongest final image if you have the latest tools, right?

The truth is quite the opposite. If you can enhance or correct your image using a simple adjustment, you’ll achieve a more naturalistic and efficient result than by deploying complex solutions.

A gaffer friend once marveled to me that no matter how large a lighting package a production is equipped with, sooner or later every single unit comes off the truck. The lesson is clear—when we have a tool available to us, it’s all too easy to convince ourselves we need it, even if it doesn’t make a difference.

In these situations, all we’re doing is adding unneeded complexity which will haunt the rest of our process. Additional tools slow down our initial pass, as each has to be auditioned and tweaked. Beyond this, they also make subsequent passes and revisions more difficult, as we have to spend more time figuring out what we’ve already done.

Color timers had simplicity thrust upon them by the limitations of their medium. They might have often wished for more complex tools than were available, but over time they became masters of accomplishing their goals with less rather than more.

If we can embrace this spirit in our own grading, great results await.

Gone, but not forgotten

As a trade, color timing is all but extinct today, confined to a handful of practitioners spread across the globe. But its hard-fought lessons and well-honed craftsmanship are still thriving.

In fact, some of today’s most accomplished colorists started their careers in the days of photochemical timing. Many of these seasoned pros openly recognize the importance of what the old craft teaches, and how that knowledge and experience should continue to inform the colorist’s creative approach.

For example, Yvan Lucas, whose credits include Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, The Irishman, and Se7en credits color timing for sharpening his creative senses.

“I was lucky because I learned in a photochemical lab. When you are making color on the print, you don’t see what you are doing directly,” Lucas says. “This is why and how I’ve acquired my color memory. If I see a shot in a movie that I am color timing, then see the same scene 20 minutes later, I know exactly what to do without even looking.”

As filmmaking technology continues to evolve, the necessity for simple and sound craftsmanship will only increase. Colorists have nearly 100 years of creative wisdom and practical insight to draw upon from the photochemical tradition. It’s simply a matter of translating it into our contemporary workflows.

As Walter Murch puts it, “these strategies should not now be thoughtlessly discarded, but rather adapted to the digital age that is upon us.”

Remembering and learning from the masters who came before will help you navigate the creative and technical challenges of filmmaking. Sure, our tools may be different today, but our goal is still the same—we’re in this business to tell great stories.

Cullen Kelly

Cullen Kelly is a Los Angeles-based senior colorist with credits spanning film, television, and commercials, for clients and outlets including Netflix, HBO, Hulu, Microsoft, McDonald’s, and Sephora. With a background in image science as well as the arts, he’s passionate about the intersection of the creative and technical, and its role in great visual storytelling. In addition to his grading work, Cullen is an educator and proven thought leader, with platforms including his podcast The Color Code as well as his YouTube channel.

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